After more than a year of bruising news, the Seattle Police Department found itself reeling Thursday after a veteran officer died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound hours after being arrested in an undercover drug sting.

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After more than a year of bruising news, the Seattle Police Department found itself reeling Thursday after a veteran officer died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound hours after being arrested in an undercover drug sting.

“This is a tremendous tragedy,” Deputy Chief Nick Metz said at a somber news conference Thursday evening at police headquarters.

The officer, Richard F. Nelson, a patrolman with more than 21 years of experience, was booked into King County Jail early Thursday on suspicion of stealing cocaine that he had failed to submit into evidence, police officials said.

Nelson, 50, had come under suspicion after other officers during the summer reported he had shown an “inordinate interest” in drug seizures, Police Chief John Diaz said during the news conference.

On Wednesday, as part of a so-called “integrity test,” an undercover officer from another agency working in the Rainier Valley approached Nelson and gave him a purse that contained cocaine, Metz said.

Unknown to Nelson, he was under surveillance by detectives watching to see if he booked the cocaine into evidence.

“He did not do that,” Metz said.

The officer was followed in his car after work and stopped by police just outside the city limits.

“There was a search, and we found a quantity of the narcotics,” Metz said.

Nelson was arrested in the felony investigation and taken to headquarters, where he spoke with command staff for a few hours before he was booked into King County Jail at 4:16 a.m. At that time, he was “offered a number of referral options for counseling,” the department said in a statement.

Police said Nelson’s department-issued handgun and badge were taken from him when he was arrested.

He was released without bail about 30 minutes later and taken home by a high-ranking commander. Nelson lives in Issaquah, according to public records and a department source.

Shortly before 11 a.m., Nelson was found by a hiker off the John Wayne Trail in the 1800 block of Cedar Falls Road Northeast near North Bend and taken to Harborview Medical Center. He died Thursday afternoon, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

A department source said the officer apparently shot himself in the head with a personal weapon.

According to police, South Precinct patrol officers alerted their supervisors in July that they had concerns about Nelson’s handling of drugs seized as evidence, triggering an internal-criminal investigation.

A second department source told The Times on Thursday that one officer, on at least two occasions, saw Nelson take crack-cocaine rocks from a drug investigation. The officer confronted Nelson, then took the issue to his bosses, the source said.

In addition, a private citizen had expressed concerns about the same time over Nelson’s handling of drugs, department officials said.

At the news conference, Mayor Mike McGinn said Nelson appeared to be addicted to drugs.

As a result of the case, the department will conduct an audit of its procedures for handling narcotics evidence, police officials said.

It is not clear if any drug cases will be affected by the case, the officials said.

Diaz said he had no choice but to open an investigation and order an integrity test. Such tests are rare, Metz said.

“We are a department that holds each other accountable,” the chief said.

Diaz said the timing of the undercover operation was influenced, in part, by the fact Nelson was assigned to a two-officer car, requiring the department to wait until he was working alone.

Police said Nelson’s release from custody Thursday morning was normal for first-time drug offenders, consistent with King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention procedures. They said Nelson wasn’t treated differently because he was a police officer.

Nelson joined the department Sept. 4, 1990. He worked in patrol operations in the South Precinct. He was married and the father of two teenagers, according to police.

One source described Nelson as a “hard worker” and “hard charger,” whose arrest came as a surprise.

Metz, Nelson’s commander at one point in the South Precinct, said the officer was “a friend to many and he was someone I respected and liked very much.”

Dan Donohoe, spokesman for the King County Prosecutor’s Office, said his office was told of the drug investigation and of Nelson’s arrest. But, he said, the case had not been referred to his office.

Nelson’s arrest is the latest blow for a department still stinging from a U.S. Department of Justice report last month that found Seattle police engaged in a pattern of excessive use of force and the department was deficient in its oversight of officers with regard to when and how they use force.

McGinn has pledged the city will adopt remedies and reforms recommended by the Justice Department, although the city and Justice need to work out a formal agreement.

The Justice Department investigation was triggered by a string of high-profile confrontations over the past 20 months between officers and citizens, caught on video with many involving use of force by officers.

In addition to the Justice Department investigation, a Seattle detective was arrested Oct. 15 in Leavenworth by Chelan County sheriff’s deputies who saw him dragging his girlfriend by her hair and coat across a gravel parking lot near an Oktoberfest venue. He was charged with fourth-degree assault, but entered into a deferred-prosecution agreement with prosecutors.

The officer, Ronald Lee Murray, 55, admitted to a history of alcoholism last week in Chelan County District Court, telling a judge he would undergo two years of treatment followed by three years of court supervision. Murray, who at the time of the incident was a detective sergeant with the Seattle Police Domestic Violence Unit, will avoid prosecution if he carries out a program of alcoholism treatment and probation.

Also in October, a narcotics detective was charged with driving under the influence after he was involved in a traffic accident in Mukilteo. John Fox, a 23-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, pleaded not guilty in Everett District Court.

Murray and Fox have been transferred to other duties.

Information from Times staff reporters Jennifer Sullivan and Christine Clarridge, Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf and Times archives is included in this report.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302

or smiletich@seattletimes.com